In "The Bight" by Elizabeth Bishop, explain the imagery and meaning of the poem.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Bight” makes uses of vivid imagery to expressive to engage the senses of the reader. The title of the poem indicates a bend or curve in the shoreline which forms a wide bay. Bishop may have been referring to Key West, Florida which she once described as a shoreline of chaos.

Written in the middle of Bishop’s life, the poet addresses her humble life hoping for signs its worth.  Her flawed life turns the poem into a search for a less frenzied approach to life. Employing intense language, Bishop searches in the sea for symbols that relate to her life. 

The images make the poem:

1st image

White, crumbling ribs of marl protrude and glare
and the boats are dry, the pilings dry as matches

When shallow from low tide, the water appears white from the marlstone which contains remnants of crushed shells. Everything is dry from the boats to the pilings because the water is not absorbed in the bight.

2nd image

The little ocher dredge at work off the end of the dock
already plays the dry perfectly off-beat claves

The imagery incorporates other senses…a person can smell the odor of gas coming from the water. Charles Baudelaire, a prolific French writer, is referenced that he would be able to hear the marimba music playing on the dock. Baudelaire’s most famous work discussed the beauty of nature as it changes. 

The yellow hued machine at the end of the dock provides a musical beat as it does its work.

3rd image

The birds seem to be the only inhabitants of the bight.  The pelicans crash into the water to find the fish. In an interesting simile, the poet compares the pelican’s beak to a pick axe that can never retrieve anything but only make a hole in the ground or, in this case, the water. It flies off using its awkward elbows. The black and white man-of-war birds use their tails like scissors as they fly on the draft from the water.

4th image

The frowsy sponge boats keep coming in
with the obliging air of retrievers,

There are two kinds of boats described: those that come in from the sea and those piled up on the shore.

The sponge boats are compared to retrieving dogs covered with hooks and bobbles and sponges. Its deck has chicken wire on it where the captured blue-gray sharks are hung up to dry. To the poet, the wire represents the little acres that plowsharers use.

The other boats have piled together because of the last storm.  The boats are on their sides, crunched up against each other waiting to be tended to. The image the poet describes is of the boats looking like letters that have been opened but not yet read.  All over the bight, there are evidences of connections.

5th image

 Click. Click. Goes the dredge,
and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.

The machine keeps working making its rhythmic clicking sound.  Every time it brings up in its jaws some of the marl comes with it. The lack of coordination in the activities chaotically endures sounding and looking terribly merry.

What is the lesson for the reader? All people experience some chaos in their lives.  The poet portrays this disorder and seems to say that this is not always something to be avoided.  Beauty can be found even in this confusing life. 



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